Innovative/Alternative Septic Systems

As towns have struggled with the necessity to stem the flow of human-produced nutrients such as nitrogen into our shared groundwater, ponds, bays and estuaries, Innovative/Alternative (I/A) Septic Systems have been installed across the Cape as a means to reduce nitrogen output on a case-by-case basis. I/A systems are much more complex than standard onsite wastewater treatment systems, and as such require that the mechanical components be maintained on a regular schedule. Additionally, as I/A systems are intended to reduce nitrogen output (effluent), the effluent must be monitored to ensure that the system is removing nitrogen to an established standard. Individual towns are tasked with ensuring that this upkeep is being completed as required for each and every I/A system.

In 2003, the Department commissioned a database to assist the towns in their compliance efforts while also creating a way to determine the long-term efficacy of using individual I/A systems as a means to reduce nitrogen loading. In 2005, this effort was expanded by contracting with Carmody Data Systems, Inc. to create a tracking database that would also allow system operators (state-licensed wastewater treatment operators who are contracted by homeowners for system maintenance) to submit maintenance and sampling reports via and internet-based interface. In addition to streamlining the reporting process, the need for system operators to send paper reports via mail was effectively eliminated.

By 2011, over 1,550 I/A systems were being tracked via the Carmody database, representing more than 30 different I/A technologies. In the Department’s efforts to ensure compliance with state and local regulations, 400 compliance actions (phone calls and sending of both certified and non-certified letters) against 112 non-compliant owners were taken during 2011 for failure to maintain their I/A systems as required.

In addition to tracking operation and maintenance compliance, the Carmody database is also used to track system performance. Since the inception of the program, over 12,700 water quality reports have been submitted, resulting in over 83,000 individual water quality data points. These water quality data points range from parameters such as effluent total nitrogen to influent BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) and water meter readings. Water quality data is monitored in real-time by the database to quickly identify and flag poorly performing systems. Follow-up on systems flagged for poor performance is completed by the Department’s Carmody database administrator.

In an effort to better educate town Boards of Health on the real-life nitrogen-reduction performance of currently-installed I/A systems, the Department prepared a series of presentations which have been given at various town Board of Health meetings. Each presentation was custom-tailored to each town’s data and each were formulated to allow Board of Health members to come to their own conclusions about what types of I/A technologies they might consider approving for use in the future, as well as providing them with a baseline to compare the performance of currently installed I/A systems.

Reports on the creation and use of the database and on system performance have been presented at national conferences.  The web-based reporting system and customized features of the database have become a national model that has been adopted by several states and jurisdictions. Environmental Project AssistantBrian Baumgaerteladministers the program.